India's liberalisation process, which kicked off in 1991, led to a gradual alignment of local art practices with global trends.
The first wave of installation and video art in the 1960s barely reached Indian shores, but the second one of the 1990s had a profound impact. As the state withdrew subsidies and opened up the economy, representation of Indian artists abroad, hitherto controlled by the national arts body the Lalit Kala Akademi, was taken over by independent curators, permitting artists experimenting with assemblage, performance, video and Web-based art to gain prominence through international biennales and survey shows. Subodh Gupta, India's best known contemporary artist, came to prominence in the late 1990s through the biennale circuit, where his installations created from organic materials like cowdung were appreciated.
Thanks to the increased similarity of art practice between India and the West, a European entering a leading gallery in Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore will relate easily to the work on display. It can be a disorienting experience to walk into such a familiar environment from chaotic streets teeming with urchins, strays and hawkers. These fractures and disjunctions have arguably been enhanced by the process of globalisation. Consequently, a major focus of politically engaged artists has been a critique of that process. Another theme that has preoccupied Indian artists over the past two decades is sectarian violence. It became central to Indian politics in the late 1980s, leading eventually to the formation of a government led by a Hindu nationalist party. Since 2004, identity politics have abated somewhat, a period of relative calm has been witnessed in parliament, and the global ‘war on terror' has taken over from communalism as a favoured subject. Leading artists like Atul Dodiya, Jitish Kallat and Shilpa Gupta have created substantial works tackling the subject of terrorism and official responses to it.
While India's print outlets have traditionally enjoyed substantial freedoms, the electronic media were in government hands until the satellite channel boom of the 1990s. The rise of cable TV and the consequent flood of visual information has led painters to employ news-based images prominently in their work. An Indian variant of photorealism has emerged in the past decade, led by practitioners such as Shibu Natesan, T V Santhosh and Riyas Komu.
Familiar as aspects of the Indian art scene will be to British visitors, they mask deeper differences involving the infrastructural underpinning of art production and dissemination. Government organs vary from conservative to comatose, public-private partnerships hardly exist and outreach programmes are rudimentary at best. The National Gallery of Modern Art recently opened a new wing in Delhi and a new branch in Bangalore, but its programming is neither energetic nor supportive of experiment. The private sector has been taking up some of the slack created by government indifference. Delhi's Devi Art Foundation showcases cutting-edge work and the upcoming Kolkata Museum of Modern Art will give art in East India a fillip. The Khoj International Artists' Association, the Indian chapter of the Triangle Arts Trust, has done important work in bringing together artists from around the world for residencies and workshops.
Unfortunately, the viewership for Indian contemporary art remained tiny through the boom of the noughties, a period when the media focussed almost exclusively on prices achieved instead of encouraging mature criticism. A further limitation is that experiments in lens-based media and performance are largely restricted to the metropolitan centres, and are yet to develop a committed base of local collectors. A number of mid-career artists who moved to Delhi, Bombay and Bangalore from less developed regions have mentored artists from their home states, but these remain isolated efforts.
The most encouraging aspect of the Indian art scene is the art itself; every week, galleries showcase exciting new talent as well as established names, and this is especially true during peak season between November and March.
Article by Girish Shanae